Equity Scholarship Provision in Australian Universities: Insights and Directions
Written by Professor Gail Whiteford and Professor Sue Trinidad, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
Higher Education in Australia has, for the last decade, been subject to a multiplicity of agendas through successive governments. This has had several impacts, many of which are beyond the scope of this paper to discuss, however one important impact has been the requirement of universities to consider their social contract in ways perhaps not undertaken previously. In particular, the framing of the Compacts, first introduced in 2010 required universities to commit to an equity target group – relevant to their specific context and to their aspirational demography – in order to address representation of disadvantaged groups nationally. Consideration of disadvantaged and under-represented groups in turn predicated an analysis of the extent of engagement that existed with such groups and the extent to which it would be perceived by that community as an engaged institution (Boyer 1990).
As members of the community, Higher Education institutions have a vested interest in the wellbeing of their community (Shannon & Wang, 2010), and have a civic responsibility to engage and enrich their community (Bacon, 2002). From a Higher Education equity policy perspective, Ramsay (2004) noted that Australia has consistently committed to systemic approaches to widen university participation, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. While the blueprint for enabling alternative pathways was established by the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission’s Higher Education Equity Program and the Aboriginal Participation Initiative (Hodges et al). The Dawkins (1988) report aspired to establish national equity objectives and a template for funding of these proposals. In 1990, A fair chance for all (DEET) placed responsibility for improving student equity largely in the hands of the universities themselves: “higher education institutions . . . have a clear responsibility to . . . [change] the balance of the student population to reflect more closely the composition of society as a whole” (p. 2). This report firmly established the sector and institutional planning and action framework for equity policy imperatives. Given the government’s strong emphasis on widening participation in higher education, many universities targeted initiatives to encourage and enable more and diverse students’ access and participation in higher education. One of these initiatives has been using scholarships to assist students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access and participate in higher education.
In July, 2014, the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, appointed a panel of experts to review higher education funding in Australia and, inter alia, mechanisms for funding equity scholarships. Given the purpose of the research reported in this paper was to identify best practice in equity scholarship provisions now and in the future, the recommendations generated by this panel and the Building A World Class Higher Education System paper released by the Minister’s office, have been contextually relevant. This is particularly the case because of the uncertainty the recommendations generated amongst university staff at all levels with regard to issues including quantum, scope and administration of equity scholarships. Additionally, concerns were expressed specifically on the apparently diminished role of the Commonwealth in a “user pays” orientation that could actually impose greater financial burdens on poorer students (see, for example, It’s about students, not Institutions by Mary Kelly, 2014). Numerous related commentaries have also been published in the media that range from discussion of the continued (under) representation of equity groups in higher education (Pitman, 2014) to calls to prevent universities from overpricing by the Business Council of Australia (Mather, 2014) to statements made by a GO8 Vice-Chancellor about how the proposed changes could enable his particular university to double current equity scholarship offerings (Bourke, 2014).
Against this backdrop, and with concern for an issue that potentially affects the lives of thousands of current and potential students, the NCSEHE undertook to deepen understandings and contribute to the national discourse on equity scholarships in a meaningful way.